Better Later or Never: College on Trial


This week, both The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times added to to mounting conversation about the status, role, and nature of college in our present moment–this time from the teenage perspective, proposing two alternatives to the traditional high-school-to-college conveyor belt:  later or never.


Jeff Salingo explores alternatives to the traditional model, such as work service or apprenticeships, that might better prepare students for the workplace.  Indeed, widespread college deferral is already happening, for the obvious reasons.  This creates a market for online solutions, which I explored here and here.  But like Clay Shirky, Salingo also highlights the stubbornness of the story we tell ourselves about college:

Perhaps the most important change may prove the most difficult: a shift of attitude on the part of parents, guidance counselors, and higher-education officials themselves, about college being the place to go right after high school.

But beyond this, as he notes, the rationale behind the conventional wisdom is often unexplored:

I began to investigate alternative paths to a credential. I talked with students who took a year off after high school before going to college. I met adults, like Evan Burfield, who had delayed going to college for several years. Mr. Burfield went to a top public school but chose to defer a rowing scholarship at Tulane University. “I graduated high school with 400 of the smartest kids, and 399 of them went to college,” he told me. “But some of them didn’t know why.”

The idea of graduating from a four-year college is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have trouble envisioning anything else….  It seems we send some kids off to college because there is nowhere else to put them. The campus is a convenient, if expensive, warehouse.

Salingo is not quite as damning or dramatic as Robert Koons–who likens the campus to a Club Med, at best, a “dark satanic mill,” at worst–but his point is similar.  It reminds me of one David Foster Wallace’s searingly insightful speculative footnotes, found in an essay on Kafka:

Do you think it’s a coincidence that college is when many Americans do their most serious fucking and falling-down drinking and generally ecstatic Dionysian-type reveling?  It’s not.  College students are adolescents, and they’re terrified, and they’re dealing with their terror in a distinctively US way.  Those naked boys hanging upside-down out of their frat house’s windows on Friday night are simply trying to buy a few hours’ escape from the grim adult stuff that any decent school has forced them to think about all week.

Wallace’s broader claim is about the place of adolescence in American life (“our present culture is, both develomentally and historically, adolescent”).  Whether Wallace is correct–David Brooks’ moree moderate appraisal in his classic column, The Odyssey Years strikes me as more accurate–he is surely on to something.  Given that college is by and large viewed as a crucible for maturation–for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood–it would seem that college, in its present form, is not doing so hot.  Wallace’s reflections, like Koon’s, raise deeper and more disturbing questions about the moral fabric and way of life in our culture; they seize upon the ways in which education is a kind of moral and existential barometer of the general health of a culture, and given the state of play, we’re barely passing.  I will explore these issues–which largely have to do with the nihilism latent in so many walks of contemporary life–in future posts.

Wallace’s ruminations about the ways in which the existential absurdities of modern American life as reflected through the college experience–the “best years of your life” spiel that teenagers often receive on the verge of heading off to college–take on a fresh light when considered in light of the economic absurdities of college today.  This is why the views of folks like PayPal co-founder, Facebook angel-investor, and Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel–that college is the way of the past, and should not be just deferred, but avoided altogether–are getting traction.


Here is Thiel’s answer to Wallace’s sad vision:

If you question the economic value of college, the defenders’ default answer is that it’s priceless. Indeed, learning should be done throughout life, and technology creates more ways to learn every year. Before long, spending four years in a lecture hall with a hangover will be revealed as an antiquated debt-fueled luxury good.

The NYT’s cover story in the Sunday Review says it all:  “The Old College Try?  No Way.”  Kindled by the pantheon of tech tycoons like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Thiel himself, an increasing number of young people are plotting alternative paths to success that circumvent the college experience.  And these young millennials’ guiding light, their role model choice form of life, as William Deresiewicz details in a stirring piece, is none other than The Entreprenuer, that swash-buckling, disruptive iconoclast.

The spike in Rand-mania over the last four years should not be seen as part of the bat-shit crazy Tea Party reaction to an imagined Socialist Takeover.  At some level, it is a gut-level, intuitive, reasonable adaption to what is rightly perceived as a massive disruption in the economy.  Part of the reason we have canonized Steve Jobs as the patron saint of our dark times–aside from the Zen-like beauty, intuitive functionality, and increasing pervasiveness of Apple products–is that he, like the other celebrity entrepreneurs, hold out the possibility of escaping the Matrix of contemporary life, a major part of which is the catch-22 of college:  “if you don’t go, you won’t succeed; if you do go, you’ll be saddled with debt and you’ll still have to struggle to not be a barista.  So go, as long as you major in business.”  Before, students would rebel against the conveyor belt, herd mentality of the straight and narrow path by majoring in philosophy or film studies, taking a year off to teach English, or dying their hair blue, deferring their entrance into the marketplace.  They rebelled against the system in order to defer entering it.  Now, they are led to consider rebelling by not going to college at all.  Here, they are rebelling against the system in order to be more successful within it.  This position is both more radical and more conservative:  more radical in that it threatens the traditional model of education, more conservative in that it doesn’t aim to protest the neoliberal society, but to ascend through it more efficiently.  The college avoiders are not melancholy slackers who reject the conventional standards of success–they are fiercely ambitious people looking to succeed by conventional standard by taking an unconventional path.

But this raises another problem.  As Tyler Durden intoned in the film Fight Club:  “We’ve been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars.  But we won’t.”  Will the “college is for suckers, be an entrepreneur” meme prove to be just another sham?

3 Replies to “Better Later or Never: College on Trial”

  1. This really seems to be a global trend. I have recently read that Korea – once obsessed with academic degrees – now promotes vocational training as an alternative to college.
    I am from Austria and we (as well as Germany) always had a traditionally low percentage of university graduates in relation to vocationally trained workers – as belabored by politicians who want to raise the number of graduates. Now Korea seems to follow the German model (introducing “meister schools”).
    I see a trend (my anecdotal evidence only) that young people with non-academic education pursue a college degree while working full time later (in their 30s).
    Ironically, people who did it the old way (“spending years in a lecture hall with a hangover”) complain that Generation Y is too white-bread and too career focused 😉

    Your blog is very interesting – looking forward to read more about your experiences with philosophical counseling (I came to your blog via Dan Mullin’s podcast).

    1. Thanks for your message. As it happens, McKinsey just released a study on the “skills gap”–the wildly different beliefs among students, educators, and employers on how well prepared graduates are for the works force. I think that part of the problem is that the old paradigm was skewed by class associations: vocational meant “blue collar” and academic meant “white collar.” That distinction is now being disrupted, if not inverted.

      I’ll be sure to check out your own blog!


  2. Interesting conincidence, thanks!

    As for the disruption: There might also be a trend towards “turning to hands-on stuff again” no matter how academic or white collar your upbringings or your eduction were. Probably not as cliché as the programmer or the top manager becoming a potter – but sort of.
    I might myself serve as an example for that in a mild variant 😉